• Eve Arnold

The Cleverest Marketing In Fast-Food History

Marketing meets Burger King. Home of the whopper, plant-based experimentation and a mouldy burger ad. Oh and the sponsor of the worst football team on FIFA.

A pretty broad range of activities I’m sure you’ll agree.

For a long time, Burger King has been McDonald’s ugly sister. It’s fell in the shadows of the fast-food giant and sat in the corner sulking. But recently, it seems like something changed. Burger King has become fed up of sitting in the corner with nobody looking.

They are stepping out into the light and they are doing it with some balls.

Burger King’s story — it’s a good one

Burger King’s story starts way back in 1953 in Jacksonville, Florida. And back then it was called Insta-Burger-King (it just rolls off the tongue). The restaurant was inspired by the giant of fast food, McDonald’s. Keith J Kramer and his wife’s uncle Matthew Burns visited the very first McDonald’s location and became inspired to set up themselves. They subsequently bought the rights to 2 pieces of equipment called ‘Insta-machines’ and opened their first location.

Long story short the insta-machines proved to be a huge success and they ended up using them in all of their franchise locations. That was until they faulted and ended up selling the brand to a pair of franchises in Miami, who decided that the Insta-Burger-King needed a bit of a revamp. And the first place to start was with the name.

The guys who took over were James McLamore and David R. Edgerton. A corporate restructure and a new name ‘Burger King’ later led to the chaps successfully running the company for 8 years and amounting a total of 250 restaurants. It was at this point they decided to sell.

The Pillsbury Company took over and there followed a lot of ‘corporate’ stuff.

But what we really want to know is who is behind the marketing at Burger King?

The Mouldy Burger (yes mouldy)

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This was the image of the preservatives campaign for Burger King. They launched it on their YouTube channel with the following description:

“The beauty of real food is that it gets ugly. That’s why we are rolling out a WHOPPER® that is free from artificial preservatives. Isn’t it beautiful? #NoArtificialPreservatives

I know. It literally does away with the complete rule book of marketing food. In theory, here is a list of all the words you should think of when you see a burger advert:

  1. Inviting

  2. Mouth-watering

  3. Tasty

  4. Delicious

  5. Quality meat

  6. Fluffy bun

  7. Crisp lettuce

  8. Fresh tomato

  9. Slightly toasted

  10. Good enough to eat

Conversely, this advert gives us the opposite of all those words. It looks gross. It does not look fresh and the last thing you want to do is eat it. So why does it work? Does it work? How did anybody sign this off?

Well, the man behind the marketing operation at Burger King is Fernando Machado. Fernando, whose degree is in engineering, started as an intern for Unilever back in 1997. Since then he’s climbed the ranks to pretty impressive heights and now sits as the CMO of Restaurant Brands International, which is the parent company of Burger King, Popeyes and Tim Hortons.

Get on to the mould

It turns out that Fernando has been a long-standing fan of Burger King’s ads but about 6 years ago he started to lose the love. He feared that the brand had got dusty and they were just doing things the same old ways and getting little traction.

He realised that the biggest challenge for their company was to capture the 18–24-year-olds. Those were the people that he needed resonate with what Burger King was doing, those are the folks at the right age to start spending money on fast-food and have a lifetime ahead of them to eat tonnes of it.

But the marketing was stagnating. Year after year the brand would fall back to what they knew because it was a good cost per reach for the teams. But Fernando wanted to go bolder. He knew the bold stuff would spark conversation with the youngsters.

At the time Burger King was working to clean up their burgers. They knew that this new generation was health-conscious and considerate. They knew that as more science came out about healthy eating, they needed to adapt with the times or face getting left behind. Their angle was removing preservatives.

No preservatives = healthier and tastier burger.

So that was the brief. Tell the world we’re taking the preservatives out of our burgers (see where this is going now?). So with that in mind, they thought long and hard, with some brand agencies about what represents that message. One of the options was a mouldy burger.

Fernando loved it.

So they experimented. Apparently, it’s quite hard to get the right level of mould on a burger for an advertising campaign — who knew?

Reportedly it took 30–40 burger attempts to get the right level of mould and then they were off to the races. Fernando explains that sometimes if you do the things the way you’ve always done them, you’ll get the results you’ve always gotten.

So why would they sponsor a football team? Marketing

Just when I thought I’d seen the most recent bold move from Burger King, somewhere along the way I stumble across this:

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My search results for ‘burger king Stevenage sponsorship’ yielding 63,000 results

Needless to say, this one got people talking. A few Google searches and LinkedIn stalks later and I then saw this…

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Stevenage / Burger King Sponsorship deal from Alex Tunbridge (CEO of Stevenage) LinkedIn account

This is one the most creative ad campaigns I’d ever seen. You and I are thrown ads every day, most of which are so boring that we don’t even notice they are there. But this ad campaign, well this was a turn out for the books.

So why did they decide to sponsor the worst team in the 4th division? Well, Stevenage would be FIFA, a game that has approximately 45 million users. If they could get their logo on the shirts in real life, it would mean they would be on the shirts of the game in the digital world too. And that allowed them to do one thing, build a movement.

So with their logo in the game, they encouraged influencers and FIFA lovers to build the best team in the game, all kitted out in the Stevenage apparel. For every goal shared on social media, Burger King gave them rewards.

How did that go down?

Well… pretty well.

  1. +25,000 goals shared online

  2. The most used team in career mode

  3. Shirts sold out for the first time ever

And for Burger King?

Well, let’s just say everyone is talking about it.

How can you channel this to your business? Marketing

Look, you know the drill here. Our brains are engaged in new and different information. Because you see the same stuff day in and day out, your brain tells itself “I’ve seen that I don’t need to read that again”. It’s why you can write a 2,000-word piece entitled: ‘How to Break Bad Habits’ and it goes nowhere. It’s been done to death.

“I’ve seen that I don’t need to read that again.”

People searching through Medium see that title and if they’ve read something similar their brain will tell them there is no point reading your article because they’ve read it before.

You need to make yourself stand out and first and best place to do that is with your title and your image. When it comes to marketing it’s the same thing, what is it that people are seeing and how can you make it different.

So some ideas?


  1. Flip the headline — from ‘How to Break Bad Habits’ to ‘People Who Try to Break Bad Habits Are Already Losing’ or ‘Stop Focusing on Breaking Bad Habits, It’s a Bad Habit’

  2. Add a picture of puppies or babies — people love cute and novelty.

  3. Go old school — write a gold enveloped letter to the influencer you are trying to get on board.

  4. Send a personalised gift — can you find out what you what the head buyer at Sainsbury’s favourite cake is, send them a cake with your product idea on it.

  5. Enter a market that no one’s looking at — could you try and get your brand on another product? Product marketing on a product? Sounds crazy but that’s how all good ideas start.

Final thoughts on marketing

The same stuff is done over and over again. Facebook ads, leaflets, YouTube ads the lot. Putting the same boring information that doesn’t engage anyone is about as good as flushing money down the loo. You need to think differently about marketing. You need to stop yourself going down the generalised route over and over.

Creativity in design and channelling is the difference between a flop and slam dunk. You can’t just put something on Facebook and hope that your product or service will fly out the door.

Your product or service will stay firmly on the shelf collecting dust if you can’t think differently. It doesn’t have to cost much. In fact, if you get it right, the creativity is worth its weight in gold.

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